Same-sex couples denied Utah marriage licenses in court order's wake
Kevin Chrisman and James Gerena were a moment too late for a lifelong pledge.
After learning of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby's decision to strike down the state's same-sex marriage ban, the Boise, Idaho, couple took their first opportunity to drive six hours and marry at the Salt Lake County clerk's office Monday morning.
But as they pulled in, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Utah's motion to stay Shelby's ruling. The window for same-sex couples, at least was now closed.
"It's like having a treasure map with an 'X' and finding there's nothing there at the end," Chrisman said.
Fifteen minutes after hearing the news, the pair sat dazed in the hallway. Chrisman, 28, proposed to Gerena, 24, a year and a half ago, and since then, they've worn their bands on and off, depending on the politics of the crowd. Even though they have been together for six years and Gerena moved to Boise from his hometown of Savannah, Ga., to be with Chrisman some friends and family still refer to them as friends.
"It's upsetting," Gerena said. "We go through terrible years of trying to come out of the closet, to make a point that we are not scared anymore. And we get told by someone that thinks that they have the right to say, 'No, you can't be happy in your life.' "
When a county worker informed a nearby lesbian couple, Chrisman says, one broke down crying. The older couple began to call family and friends who had been planning on attending their wedding from out of state. "Don't bother," they told them.
"You cannot tell me that is fair," Gerena said. "To give them a 'No,' yet we saw a [straight] couple that looks like they're both 18 years old just walk out of there, gonna go and get married."
Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen estimates that four couples had been turned away Monday as of 11 a.m.
As Chrisman and Gerena composed themselves, a lesbian couple walked into the clerk's office, where a county worker told them about the stay.
"What's that?" one asked.
"What I'm saying is â¦ we were issuing licenses until 15 minutes ago, then we were told by the Supreme Court â¦"
"Oh, come on!"
The couple declined to identify themselves to the media. They'd be going to Washington, they said.
John Netto, interim director of the Utah Pride Center, said that on the whole, the state's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT) had prepared for this possibility.
"We're very confident, ultimately, that the issue will be decided in our favor," he said. "It's the only right thing to do."
Seth Anderson and Michael Ferguson, the first couple to be married at the Salt Lake County clerk's office Dec. 20, have been advised that the stay may affect their ability to file taxes jointly. But, "We didn't get married for that purpose," Anderson says.
"As it stands, we are legally married in Utah," he says. "I will not easily allow anyone to take that away from me at all."
In the 17 days same-sex marriage has been legal in Utah, more than 1,300 same-sex couples have been wed. Swensen said her office is still looking for clarification on what to do about licenses that have been picked up but not yet returned, as Utah couples have 30 days to get married after picking up a license and an additional 30 days to return it to the clerk.
Michael Braxton, who legally performed a marriage for a same-sex couple Saturday, was able to register the marriage certificate Monday shortly after the stay. Because the marriage took place before the stay, the clerk's office recorded it.
"It's sort of like the red line, you cannot go forward because the ruling does not have the authority to go forward," said Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
"Our commitment is to follow the law â¦ we basically go back to the pre-Dec. 20 days," Gill said. "Right now, what the sate of the law in the state of Utah is now, is you cannot perform that marriage."
Anderson pointed out that whichever side wins at the 10th Circuit, the case likely will go to the U.S. Supreme Court. And that, he thinks, could take a few years.
"People were so shocked we had marriage ... that a good number of people that were ready took action," Netto said. "Frankly, I think we're winning, and I think we're winning in a major way. â¦ I see these interim skirmishes as an opportunity to sharpen our swords and figure out what to do next."
When Marina Gomberg heard the ban on same-sex marriage had been struck down, she left work early and rushed to the Salt Lake County clerk's office with her partner, Elenor Heyborne.
Though she's disappointed by the stay, she said, "this doesn't invalidate what took place over the last couple weeks here, and it can't diminish the commitment of loving same-sex couples. I sort of feel like this is part of the process of change, and we have to be patient and hopeful."
How many same-sex couples were married?
There's no definitive number for same-sex couples married in Utah since U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby's landmark ruling.
For starters, the licenses only have fields for "bride" and "groom." In larger counties that have issued hundreds of licenses since Dec. 20, all they can do is estimate.
Calling all 29 counties, The Tribune compiled a total of 1,324 with a significant flaw: It excludes Utah's second-most populous county.
Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson simply refuses to hazard a guess.
"This was all supposed to be about equality," says Thompson, who notably denied marriage licenses for five days after Shelby's ruling while he sought legal clarification. "There wasn't supposed to be any differentiation between heterosexual and homosexual marriage licenses."
The most licenses were issued in Salt Lake County, at 800, followed by Weber (about 175), Davis (about 150), Washington (58) and Summit (41) counties.
Other county totals include: Tooele (28), Grand (13), Cache (12), Box Elder (10-12), Uintah County (9), Carbon (5), Wasatch (5), Iron (4), Kane (3), Sanpete (3), Duchesne (2), Juab (1), Millard (1), San Juan (1), Sevier (1) and Wayne (1).
Seven counties did not issue a same-sex marriage license, according to county workers: Beaver, Daggett, Emery, Garfield, Morgan, Piute and Rich.